Green Climate Fund feels the heat


This article was first posted on IRIN

It’s just three months since world leaders reached an agreement in Paris to commit billions of dollars towards curbing and adapting to climate change. But the UN body responsible for ensuring the money is spent effectively is facing some critical questions.

The Green Climate Fund (GCF) has so far focused on building a framework to approve its first batch of projects. The fund set itself the tough goal of distributing $2.5 billion by the end of 2016, a quarter of the $10 billion currently pledged by countries in support of the climate cause.

But with December’s summit over and with a pipeline of only eight investments totalling $168 million, the GCF also finds itself without a clear vision or long-term strategy – and faces criticism from partners as well as developing countries struggling with its red tape. Continue reading

Food – the big picture

This article was first posted on IRIN

Global food security is not just about how much we grow. To achieve it, we need to look at the bigger picture, particularly at the way in which water and energy needs underpin production.

Climate change threatens all of that. Rainfall variability directly affects crop production, but also energy generation (think of hydropower) – essential to grow, store, process and move food.

Tropical regions are the worst affected. “Not only are the areas closer to the equator more prone to weather extremes such as flood or drought, but smallholder farmers often don’t have the resources to cope with changes in the local climate,” Frank Rijsberman, head of CGIAR, the global agricultural research consortium, told IRIN.

While extreme events used to occur once every 100 years, they can now be expected every few decades. Seasonal weather patterns are also changing, altering habitats often irreversibly. Continue reading

Cut emissions and build resilience


This article was first posted on IRIN

Climate change is part of the planet’s natural cycle, and its citizens have always learned to cope. But the increased global temperatures recorded over the last century point to a future where, without common action, the globe may fall – irreparably – out of kilter.

“What makes this period so challenging is that temperatures are increasing much more rapidly than we’ve ever seen in history, over a short period of time,” explains Michael Marshall, a climate change scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.

When scientists talk about a surface temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius, conventionally adopted as the threshold to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, they refer to a global average. This means that while certain areas of the world may become just slightly warmer in the future, arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel are very likely to get much hotter than the rest of the planet, at worst becoming uninhabitable. Continue reading

What’s Loss and Damage: Negotiating tool or moral compass?

Nakuoro atoll - Credit NASA

Nakuoro atoll – Credit NASA

What is it? Nobody agrees

If you’ve been following the UNFCCC negotiations for a while, chances are you’ve encountered the term ‘loss and damage’. For years, this issue has been one of the most divisive and controversial at the annual sessions of the UNFCCC COP, and COP21 will be no exception. But a quick look at the history of the concept and how it became such a big part of the climate negotiations reveals that the evidence base for the idea is not robust – nor is it really clear what ‘loss and damage’ refers to.

From rising sea levels to exacerbated weather events, climate change is affecting the planet in unpredictable ways. Humans are learning to adapt, but when brought to extremes, these impacts are simply impossible to adapt to. Continue reading

Loss, Damage and Climate Migration in Alaska


Tikigaq is one of the longest continuously inhabited communities on the North American continent. Its people are so ancient that their local language has a word for the woolly mammoth, which shared their small peninsula in northwestern Alaska before it went extinct over 11,000 years ago. In the not-so-distant future, some of these communities may be forced to move, as a result of a warming climate that is destroying their habitat.

Continue reading

How will cheap oil affect clean energy?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to make sense of the debate around falling oil prices. A barrel (159 litres) of Brent crude oil, the main benchmark for oil trading worldwide, fell under 50US$ last month.

I found this infographic (click to open the original) that shows how oil prices, far from being just a matter of availability of the raw material, are regulated by financial, natural and political factors.

oil price

The chart shows the variation of oil prices over the past 30 years, ending in 2014 with 104US$ per barrel. Imagine a decreasing curve even steeper than in 2009, when prices dropped as a result of the financial crisis in 2008.

Now analysts have been wondering what the recent fall may mean for the fossil fuel industry and its stakeholders. For example shale gas, which in the past few years boomed as a cheaper alternative to oil, won’t be as competitive as before. Good news for the environment, as the controversial extraction technique used to produce shale gas, hydraulic fracturing or fracking, is known to have severe environmental impacts.

But cheaper oil also means cheaper petrol, so for example more and bigger cars on the streets.

Also, cheap oil seems to be damaging the clean energy industry, that was just recently starting to catch up with fossil fuels, thanks to subsidies, technological breaktrhoughs and high fossil fuel prices.

Last December, at the UN conference on climate change in Lima, I spoke with a few scientists and members of the private sector about how to promote the transition to a climate friendly economy. All of them stressed the importance of the cooperation between private and public sector. They believe that governments won’t be able to bridge the gap between the current carbon based economy and what’s needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The private sector has to step in with money and capacity for implementation, but a climate friendly industry there is need of an ‘enabling environment’.

In other words, investors won’t go for renewables if they have a cheaper and more profitable option.

But there are other factors playing a part, that are unique to the current socioeconomic context. For example, diesel is today less relevant in the global energy mix, so the development of renewables is not affected as heavily as in the past.

Big oil companies are cutting their investments, and though this could potentially reduce the availability of oil resetting the prices, some say this time recovery could be more difficult, due to the implementation of carbon pricing and incentives for clean energy development.

My conclusions so far somehow overlap with the starting point of this video (strongly recommended, very clear and informative) . The volatility of oil price affects the global economy in a such a complex way that drawing an ultimate conclusion on the benefit or damages of a new age of cheap oil would be misleading.

How this will affect clean energy progress will also depend on how long the prices will stay low, what type of incentives the international community will put in place globally as well as locally, what sanctions will be issued to discourage countries from relying on fossil fuels.

What exactly is DIY journalism?

Photo: Donald Lee Pardue via Flickr

Photo: Donald Lee Pardue via Flickr

Last week, at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, I spoke in a panel discussion called “Freelance: by choice or by necessity?“, together with some colleagues of different background and experience. There were a war correspondent, a tech journalist from Berlin and an investigative journalist based in Cairo.

We mainly talked about being a freelancer (you don’t *work* as a freelancer, you are one). Aside from discussing the appalling condition of the job market in Italy, we spent some thoughts on what makes a good, marketable freelancer in Italy and abroad.

I often mention the idea of ‘Do It Yourself journalism’, generally known as the ability to manage the whole process of news production from pitching a story to editing a video or taking pictures.

So I think it’s good to tell a bit more about what I mean by DIY in journalism, which is in fact something different from its conventional definition.

When I started my career and my new life as a multimedia reporter in the UK, I knew very little about multimedia, I wasn’t very organised and I handled multitasking quite badly. To say the least. Over time I improved my skills, I became more confident with my English and learnt how to produce a multimedia news package independently. I now have a few pieces of equipment as well, a reflex camera with a couple of lenses, a zoom recorder, tripod.

I have always liked to think I am a DIY journalist, but I’ve never really thought about what is exactly that identifies me as such.

So one obvious answer could be that if you have a very good equipment and know how to use it, you are probably in a good position to be a self sufficient producer. Does that mean that a DIY journalist is some sort of techy geek with a lot of money to spend upfront? Certainly not.

I believe that all the fuss around the multimedia, multitasking and multi skilled modern journalist can be boiled down to one simple idea. The DIY journalist needs to be a good storyteller. But since the dominion of the words in journalism has come to an end more than a few years ago, the storytelling we need to master is a non-linear one.

A beautiful feature still is and probably will remain an appealing way to tell stories, but as an example look at the feature How Malaria Defeats our Drugs by Ed Yong. It’s a great piece of writing, enriched by some non linear elements (photos, extras) that somehow break the flow and open new patterns for the users to build their own story.

A non-linear narrative is like a web, dotted with junctions generating multiple paths. It is not a path you have to follow from A to B and from B to C, but a story that you build yourself navigating the content. It’s much more similar to how human interaction works in real life than any other form of storytelling.

Ed Yong’s feature is just one example, but you will find traces of non linear narratives basically everywhere. Social media handles are pivotal points within non linear plots, but even the juxtaposition of images and text triggers a different experience from the sum of visual and written part.

A journalist who understands how to combine a variety of materials to create a narrative that opens up multiple user experiences doesn’t need expensive equipment. I daresay he(she) doesn’t even need outstanding writing skills. A good storytelling stands alone.

On the African media revolution

So, I decided to take a break.

I needed a holiday and since I gave up my big travel to Cape Town I opted for a short trip to Perugia, in Italy, to attend of my favourite events, the International Journalism Festival.
For those who have never heard of it, the event takes place in one of the most beautiful cities in Italy and features a variety of very interesting panel discussions around journalism and the future of the industry. This year I was pleasantly surprised to discover a number of sessions addressing the issue of media and innovation in the Global South.

The talk I attended was called The Future of African Media, and hosted five experts and media entrepreneurs who use innovative strategies and simple technologies in Africa.

In my job, I read tons of stories on global development and I think that by now I have a decent grasp of the economic landscape of the continent, at least in its main features. For example, I know that Africa’s economy is growing fast and its population is exceptionally young. A very fertile environment for innovation, especially in technology.

But yesterday I learnt how this somehow theoretical idea is actually a solid reality and it can also teach something to the rich North.

For example, check Code for Africa, an innovative journalism project that would stand out even in the high tech environment of many Western countries. The idea is to stop using journalism, data and technology to educate citizens about stuff they are supposed to care about, and start listening to their needs instead.

So the Code for Africa collective produces “news tools” such as data visualisations, mobile apps and data sets manually scraped and uploaded onto the internet. These are not only beautiful and playful, but also truly useful. People aren’t supposed to be interested for the sake of it, but will use the information as a service to improve their everyday life.

There is a tool that helps people register for the elections and vote and another one to keep track of medicines’ prices. Journalists who want to take part are taught how to scrape and use data and how to code, so they eventually will be able to build their own tools to display and add value to their investigation.

I imagine that when it comes to Africa it may be easy to identify practical needs of people, as in many countries there are economic and political problems that make it difficult to deal with simple things. But the idea could work in the Global North as well, it’s really just a matter of identifying what services are lacking in a certain community. And this makes the initiatives naturally very marketable.

If you want to know more about Code for Africa and other similar initiatives, you can check my audio interview to Justin Arenstein, which will be published on SciDev.Net shortly

Small chat about Africa and optimism


The other day I interviewed my colleague Jon Spaull about his recent trip to South Africa, where he visited the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope. The telescope is still under construction but once completed, in 2028, it will enable astronomers to “monitor the sky in unprecedented detail and survey the entire sky thousands of times faster than any system currently in existence.”

You will learn more about the project in the next SciDev podcast, or you can watch Jon’s film here.

While talking about the young researchers working at SKA, I realised that the strongest impression I got from I daresay all of my African friends and in general the African people I met, regardless social background, gender or age, is of a strong optimism.

Born and raised in a country where people know that the best is behind and the future is something from which one should protect oneself instead of embrace it, optimism always strikes me.

I drew a secret map of what people said me, the reasons why they want and believe they can make an impact in the respective countries. They look with trust at their political leaders or at the scientific progress of their nations. Sometimes they just believe that change will come from civil society. Having worked for a little while with African partners and having eagerly listened to the stories of those who travelled and lived in the continent, I came to think there is an element of truth in this positive narrative.

Of course once you detach yourself from the success stories you hear and report on, and look at solid data on poverty, governance, transparency or energy access the situation looks very different, and it makes you feel a bit of a fool.

But I think that optimism is a mandatory first step in a drive for change. That’s what’s lacking in my homecountry. People want a change, but nobody really believes it’s going to happen, or it’s even possible.

Here’s a soundbite of me and Jon that I randomly grabbed during our interview.

On Africa, energy and what’s next


Looking back to my feelings about my first trip to Africa, I remember thinking – should I hate it (after having written so much about it) would I have to quit my job?

Now that was a joke, but in truth I didn’t know what to expect and I was rather nervous at the idea of catching strange diseases of parasites. Someone told me you can get maggots that grow under your skin. No joke he still has tiny scars on his forearm.

Anyway at the end of the two weeks I spent in Ethiopia I was struck by the difference between my Europe and what felt like another world, and I decided to go back to Africa as soon as possible. So South Africa is waiting for me in May, this time for holiday and I will probably be offline for a while.

Addis will linger in my memory as city of contrast, with mothers and babies sitting on the side of dusty roads while businessmen and diplomats eat expensive meals in the restaurant of a luxury hotel just a few meters away.

A room in an average hotel costs about 175 US$ per night, equivalent to 3380 birrs, the local currency. The average monthly salary of a chef or an experienced waiter is around 2000 birrs.

My two weeks were spent working on two very different tasks. For the first week I’ve been covering a conference of the African EU Energy Partnership. It was a very interesting meeting where I had the chance to meet awesome people from different countries, had a lot of fun and tested my skills with some data journalism.

The partners from Africa and the EU gathered for the first time in 2010, in Vienna, to set goals for energy progress in Africa to be met by 2020.The goal involved different fields, the most important of which were energy security, to be achieved through increased energy production from a mix of renewables and fossil fuels, and energy access for additional 100 million Africans by the end of the decade.

But the first status report, published during the conference, unveiled a rather upsetting situation. None of the target is likely to be met and a serious lack of planning leaves little room for hope. You can read a blog I wrote on the topic here, and the full report here.

Among other things, here’s an infographic I produced with Piktochart (here the interactive version). It shows how long would it take to meet the targets at the present rate of increase. Pretty striking figures: wind energy would meet the goals set for 2020 in… 2117.

That of course raises questions about the baseline used to set the goals, and about the data collection capacity underlying it. You will hear more on that in my next podcast, to be published in a few days.

Africa energy performance